When the smoke clears off the streets of Manhattan, will it
rise in Queens?
More street vendors may soon surface in Queens, drawing crowds of
sale-seekers to borough sidewalks.
Photos By Liz Goff.
In all likelihood it will, said Queens officials, as street vendors make their way
across the river to hawk their goods at locations like Continental Avenue in Forest Hills,
downtown Flushing and Astoria.
The prospect of vendors relocating to Queens has community officials and business
owners in an uproar fearful that the city may help them make the move and even map
out sites where they can relocate.
"Theres no doubt about it," said City Councilmember Karen Koslowitz,
who said she noticed a marked increase in peddlers in her Forest Hills district after the
city chased them off streets around Madison Square Garden back in 1995.
"We have had a proliferation of vendors in Forest Hills since they were moved out
of Manhattan three years ago," Koslowitz said. "And this current move involves
144 city blocks that are swarming with vendors.
"These people are not going out of business, so where does the city think
theyll go?" Koslowitz declared.
The Queens lawmaker questioned the status of a 1995 proposal penned by the Street
Vendor Review Panel that would permit vendors to hawk their goods on some of the busiest
commercial strips in Queens.
Those sites include Continental Avenue, Ascan Avenue and "spots" along Austin
Street in Forest Hills; Broadway and Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria and Junction Boulevard;
from 57th Avenue to the Long Island Expressway and 34th Avenue to Roosevelt Avenue, in
The 1995 proposal, which was never scrapped by the city, was described as a
"compromise" to vendors who were scooted off streets on 42nd Street from First
to Eighth Avenues, on Fifth Avenue from Central Park to Rockefeller Center and on 33rd
Street between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.
The city took Applications To Relocate from the vendors, judging them based on "a
series of factors," said Rudy Washington, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development.
Hungry Queensites gather to munch some lunch from a local food
vendor - who may soon be faced with increased competition from his peers.
"The decisions on where to relocate the vendors is based upon the merits,"
said a spokesperson for Washington. Those merits include how long the vendor has been in
business and their record of paying taxes to both the city and state, authorities said.
The vendors sued the city back in 1995 a move that many have been forced to
relocate since then now describe as a waste of time.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani remains steadfast in his determination to rid Manhattans
streets of vendors. The mayor has said repeatedly that vendors clog the streets in midtown
and take customers away from legitimate, tax-paying businesses in the city.
Officials of the citys Small Business Congress (SBC) have argued for years that
the skyrocketing number of small businesses who have been forced to shut their doors in
Queens were "directly influenced" to do so because of the vendor problem.
"Street vendors make up the fastest growing industry in the city," SBC
officials said. "Its the citys worst kept secret, and not something to
take pride in."
After public outcry back in the 1970s, the citys Department of Consumer Affairs
established guidelines for licensed vendors, designating "Restricted Zones"
along commercial strips throughout the five boroughs.
Only licensed vendors offering specific items for sale may set up shop within the
zones. Licensed vendors who operate outside the zone are free to sell just about anything
from T-shirts to tricycles, presenting a genuine threat, either way, to shopkeepers
who pay mounting rent and taxes. The vendors have none of the overhead of stores, such as
rent, insurance, utilities, and some 17 direct and indirect taxes paid by merchants and
The proposal to relocate calls for the removal of restrictions on some commercial
strips in Queens a direct reversal of the victory sought and won by business and
community leaders some 25 years ago.
"Dont businesses in Queens pay taxes just like these in midtown
Manhattan?," SBC officials said.
Failure on the part of vendors to pay taxes ignites furor among business owners. State
finance officials told the Tribune that both New York City and New York State
continue to lose an "unaccountable" amount of tax dollars through a system that
fails to monitor the sales tax practices of street vendors licensed by the citys
Health Department and Department of Consumer Affairs.
"Simply stated, not enough people who hold vendor licenses and are selling, are
recording or reporting their sales, state tax officials said.
"There is no way, currently, to tell how much is collected by vendors in the form
of tax dollars, or even if they collect tax at all."
In addition, the Department of Consumer Affairs as a matter of routine practice
renews licenses of vendors who fail to provide accurate information regarding the
taxes they have collected.
"Its a way for them to avoid coughing up tax dollars to the citys
coffers," SBC officials said.
Speaking under the condition of anonymity, an employee of the state Department of
Taxation and Finance told the Tribune that vendors regularly file unsubstantiated
information when reporting their earnings.
"They claim illness, or family circumstances prohibited them from working,
lets say seven months out of the year," the source said.
"The department regularly issues tax clearance certificates based on the
information submitted. The vendors then file the clearance certificates with Consumer
Affairs as part of their license renewal procedure.
"Their licenses are renewed without question although employees of both
agencies know that the vendors have not submitted true earnings certificates," they
An employee at the state tax office who refused to give his name told the
Tribune that "people should get serious" about the limitations faced by
employees of the agency. "Dont start making waves," the man said. "We
simply dont have enough people on staff here to even try to verify these earnings
Aside from other problems generated by legal vendors, it has been estimated that at
least an additional 15,000 unlicensed vendors hawk food and merchandise throughout the
five boroughs, further clogging city streets and costing more than $800 million annually
in unpaid taxes.
Police officials have established tough enforcement guidelines to control the actions
of vendors both legal and illegal.
A multi-agency crackdown directly impacts on vendors who sell their merchandise
legally, and shuts down those who hawk their goods without a license.
The police and health departments, and the Department of Consumer Affairs have issued a
combined total of over 200,000 summonses to vendors since 1990.
Some of the cases are resolved in court, when a vendor appears and pays a fine. The
vendor may then reclaim any merchandise (except perishables) that are confiscated by
police. Food products and perishable items are donated to shelters and food kitchens by
officials at local precincts.
Once the vendor has reclaimed his merchandise, its back to the streets and
in most cases, back to the same practices that resulted in the summonses.
"Business people in Queens pay taxes," said Gus Kobleck, executive director
of the Central Astoria Local Development Corporation. "They pay high overhead to run
"It is the business owner who is cited by sanitation officers for paper and other
debris left by vendors when they pack up and go home for the day," he said.
"Our local businesses employ our local residents from teenagers to seniors
seeking to supplement their income," he added. "Its just not fair to place
vendors outside their stores."
City Council Member Anthony Weiner, who represents parts of Brooklyn (where the plan
seeks also to relocate the vendors), blasted the Street Vendor Panel, and called the plan
to move vendors "arbitrary."
Weiner said he plans to introduce legislation, calling for the breakup of the
four-member Vendor Panel, which currently consists of three mayoral appointees. Giuliani
has not yet acted on naming a fourth member.
Local merchants groups from throughout Queens fumed at the prospect of more vendors in
the borough. Some vendors voiced their opposition to the plan as well, charging that the
city routinely ignores the problem of illegal, unlicensed street hawkers.
Another of the vendors gripes charge is that local development corporations (LDC)
will not give legal vendors a fair break because they view them as competition to local
businesses not just because they allegedly clog and litter the streets.
The vendors said the LDCs clutter local streets themselves, by running street
festivals and allowing vending machines on bustling corners in Queens. The LDCs generate
funding from local businesses through approved "tax" payments that foot the bill
for security and other amenities for the retailers.
"What about all these new trees the LDCs are planting on commercial strips?"
said a disgruntled vendor who came to Queens after the 1995 exorcism of peddlers from
Manhattan. "They clog the streets and take away sidewalk space. Are trees more
important than people who work to support families?"
Rudy Washington announced this week that the city would not just move food vendors out
of Manhattan. The move will include booksellers, newspaper vendors (paid publications) and
artists who hawk items that receive First Amendment protection and who are not required to
have a license.
"If we say that a street is too cluttered to allow vending, we must include all
vendors," Washington said. "If we ban food vendors from a street, we must ban any
That move alone will force over 100 illegal book vendors out of Manhattan a
threatening specter to officials and business owners in Queens.
"The vendors think they can operate without any restrictions or guidelines,"
Kobleck said. "They think its okay to set up shop anywhere, anytime, and do
whatever they want.
"Who does the city care about?," he asked. "People who pay taxes, or
people who break the law?"